A Different World: The Best College Football Players of the 1980s

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This just in: the 80s weren’t all Cold War and Fraggle Rock. Yes, there was far more to that decade than Jordache and wisecracking, cat-eating aliens from Melmac. In fact, the years between 1980 and 1989 also happened to be a great time in college football.
Fans in the 80s bore witness to dynasties at Miami and Penn State, while also seeing possibly the greatest decade of running backs ever to play the game. So let’s take a look back, and remember the top five college football players from the 1980s…

5 Deion Sanders – Florida State University, CB (1985-1988)

There’s nothing Deion Sanders couldn’t do… literally. As a freshman at FSU, Deion starred in three sports for the Seminoles, excelling at track, baseball and football. An unbelievable overall athlete, Deion ran the fastest 40-time in the football team’s history (4.23), played corner, and returned punts under Bobby Bowden. Over his career, Sanders had 14 picks and amassed nearly 1,500 punt return yards, taking 3 back for touchdowns. The only shortcoming of Deion’s time at Florida State? His nickname, “Prime Time,” was apparently given to him by himself, which we can all agree is pretty douchey.

4 John Elway – Stanford University, QB (1979-1982)

Here how you know how great John Elway was, he made this list despite having played for a dismal Stanford team that didn’t even go .500 with him at the helm. We’re talking about a program so unfamiliar with victory that the utter confusion of a possible win led their band to run out onto the field and cost them a trip to a bowl game. In any case, Elway was stellar at quarterback for the Cardinal, passing for over 9,000 yards and 77 touchdowns, and notching a stunning career QB rating of 139.3. He was a two-time PAC 10 Player of the Year and a consensus All-American, it’s just a shame he was a zero-time bowl gamer… friggin’ band.

3 Bo Jackson – Auburn University, RB (1982-1985)

In his four years at Auburn, Bo Jackson racked up nearly 5,000 yards and 45 touchdowns, all while playing baseball, because yeah, he’s just THAT much better than you. On top of being a two-time consensus All-American and an SEC Player of the year, he also set the single-season SEC record (at the time) with 6.4 yards per carry, and took home the Heisman for the Tigers in ’85. Plain and simple, Bo knows competing and excelling at the college level as well as professionally (not as catchy as his ads, but you get it).

2 Barry Sanders – Oklahoma State University, RB (1986-1988)

Serving as Thurman Thomas’ backup, Barry Sanders accumulated just 10 touchdowns and less than a thousand yard over his freshman and sophomore seasons. But once he became a starter in 1988, well then Barry Sanders blew every other player in the nation out of the water. Sanders ran for what still stands as an NCAA record 2,628 yards and 39 touchdowns, and for some reason the Heisman committee elected to still hold a ceremony even though he won the award by a cool margin of nearly 1000 votes. Then, just for good measure, Barry tacked on 222 yards and 5 more touchdowns for the Cowboys in the Holiday Bowl. Merry Christmas OK State.

1 Herschel Walker – University of Georgia, RB (1980-1982)

Herschel Walker was a legend from the time he stepped on campus, leading the Bulldogs to their one and only National Championship his freshman year, and racking up 5,502 yards and 52 touchdowns over his career. He was a consensus All-American, the SEC Player of the Year, and in the running for the Heisman all THREE years he was at Georgia, and took home the Heisman as a junior. In fact, he likely would’ve won again as a senior had he not left early for the USFL, and to this day, Walker still owns nearly every single Georgia football rushing record. And in case you were wondering how much of a beast he was, just know that he took up MMA at age 48 and has yet to be beaten. So yeah, you probably wouldn’t want to cross him at 20.

Well, there you have it, the greatest college football players of the 1980s. There were a few close calls that missed out, like Derrick Thomas (LB, Alabama) and Bill Cosby (we know he didn’t play football, but let’s not pretend that the Coz didn’t just generally dominate the 80s), but we had to make the cut somewhere.
Think you can put together a better list of your own? Give it a shot. But good luck figuring out who to drop in order to make room for Cliff Huxtable.

TK Kelly is a comic and writer who has performed at clubs across the country like the Comedy Store, the Improv, Gotham, and Standup NY. He has also written for Tosh.0, Comedy Central Studios, Funny or Die, Recycled Babies Sketch Comedy, and Second City. His standup comedy has been described as “a thing that happens sometimes,” and according to one of his grandmothers, he is a generally delightful young man. If he were forced at gunpoint to describe himself in one word, that would be a really weird hostage situation.

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